Historians Mount Challenge to Postmodern Orthodoxy

Article excerpt

Marc Trachtenberg refers to it as his "John Belushi letter," the manifesto that signaled his complete alienation with the dominant forces in his chosen profession.

The year was 1982, and the diplomatic historian from the University of Pennsylvania was attending the annual convention of the American Historical Association (AHA). Right there, at the profession's largest and best-known association, he took up a resolution supporting a unilateral U.S. freeze on nuclear weapons.

"It had a long list of `Whereases' about the weapons industry and war that I knew from my own research were completely absurd," he said. "I wrote a letter in opposition that started out reasonably and, like Belushi in the old `Saturday Night Live' skits, got more and more worked up and emotional as it went along.

"I think I got one letter in support."

Now Mr. Trachtenberg and some of the nation's most distinguished historians from across the political spectrum have banded together to challenge both the AHA and what they call the prevailing assumptions on how historical evidence should be weighed. Other assumptions cover what subjects are worthy of examination, the role of politics, ideology and identity in the writing of history, and how history should be taught in America's schools.

The Historical Society, announced at a press conference at the National Press Club yesterday, "will be a place in which significant historical subjects are discussed and debated sharply and frankly in an atmosphere of civility, mutual respect and common courtesy," according to a statement of principles released by the organizers.

"All we require is that participants lay down plausible premises; reason according to the canons of logic; appeal to evidence; and prepare to exchange criticism with those who hold different points of view," it says.

"We are not in rebellion against the new subject matter" focusing on such issues as race, sexuality, and gender in history, said Historical Society founding president Eugene D. Genovese, a Marxist and professor of Southern history.

"What we do object to is an imposed ideological line of any kind and the compartmentalized research being done these days that is more an exercise in self-expression than an effort to deal with objective reality," he said.

A "crust of dull conformity" has created an inbred profession with little relevance beyond the university gates, added Yale University's Donald Kagan, author of a four-volume history of the Peloponnesian Wars.

"Historians should be having a constantly revolutionary effect on American society if they were doing their job," he said. "Many of us are deeply troubled and disillusioned by the conditions in the profession today. Our purpose is to create some excitement."

AHA officials said yesterday they had only just learned of the plans for the new organization.

"In an organization with 15,000 members, it's natural that you are going to have some people unhappy," said Vernon Horn, a communications specialist for the association. "We have about as democratic a committee structure as you can have and we welcome anyone who is a practicing historian."

Historical Society founders say there has been widespread unhappiness with the direction of the major history association, but Mr. Horn said yesterday that membership has held steady in recent years and even grew slightly over the past year.

The historians' revolt is just the latest fire fight over the state of liberal arts education today, a rebellion against the postmodern orthodoxy that critics say holds sway and determines who gets ahead in English literature, sociology, political science and history departments in higher education today. …